Illuminating the Enlightenment: A Semiotic for the Digital Age

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One of the crucial elements in teaching, and performing, popular cultural semiotics is the identification of the larger contexts (or systems of associations and differences) in which particular popular signs may be situated. This means that one must be aware not only of current popular movies, TV shows, consumer trends, etc., in order to conduct semiotic analyses of them, but that one must also be ever attuned to what one might call, for lack of a better term, the "spirit of the age." In this vein, then, my first blog for the new year will constitute a semiotic analysis of the spirit of the digital era, beginning with what will likely appear to be a rather peculiar starting point: namely, the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment.

I start here due to a purely fortuitous decision to pull an old book off my shelf last week that I should have read forty years ago but didn't, until now: Garry Wills' Inventing America (1978). Now, I don't want to get involved here in the somewhat controversial thesis Wills proposed about the sources of Jefferson's thought and language when he first drafted the Declaration of Independence—that's something better left for specialists in the field. Rather, I am only interested in the extraordinary revelations of the ins and outs of Enlightenment thinking that Wills masterfully presents. In a word, Wills reveals that behind the Newtonian clockwork universe informing much of Enlightenment discourse was a veritable religion of the number. And I'm not just talking about the quantitative advances that led, towards the end of the eighteenth century, to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of scientific modernity; I'm talking about the ecstatic belief that Newtonian methods could be applied to the explication of, and solution to, every human problem.

Let me offer (courtesy of Wills' ample citations) a particularly striking example. Here is Francis Hutcheson's algebraic formula for the measurement of human morality as presented in the second edition of his founding text for the Scottish Enlightenment, Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1726):

M = (B + S) X A = BA + SA; and therefore BA = M - SA = M - I, and B = M - I/A

[where B = Benevolence, A = Ability, S = Self Love, I = Interest, and M = Morality].

Actually, there's more to the formula than I've reproduced here, but you'll get the point. Here, from a Presbyterian Divine, we find dramatic evidence of the extraordinary prestige of the Newtonian method, the belief that if Newton could use mathematics to measure and explain the universe, philosophers could do the same in measuring and guiding, humanity.

Sound familiar? Substitute the words "big data" for "mathematics" and you've got the current zeitgeist in a nutshell. For here too, from Steven Pinker to the purveyors of AI, digital humanists to data analysts, Educause to edX, and so on and so forth ad infinitum across our cultural spectrum, we can find what is effectively a religious faith in the omnipotence of numbers.

The Enlightenment accordingly offers a significant point of association to which we can relate our current l’esprit de l’époque. But (and I can never repeat this often enough) the significance of a phenomenon lies not only in what it can be associated with but also in its differences from similar phenomena within its system. And there is a difference between the origins of the enormous cultural prestige enjoyed by Enlightenment mathematics and of twenty-first century data worship. For while the Enlightenment was wowed by Newton's scientific achievements (achievements, it can be added, that long preceded any large-scale commercial applications), the wow factor today (as I have noted before in my blog on the "religion" promoted by the now-defunct corporation Theranos) derives from the unimaginably huge fortunes that have been made, and will continue to be made, by the corporate masters of big data. Google effectively started it all by finding a way to monetize its free services by tracking our online behavior and selling it to marketers, making personal data the holy grail of post-industrial capitalism (Facebook, of course, is the second biggest name in this tradition). The difference, in a word, is between science and commerce, with the Googleplex and its offspring occupying the cultural role once occupied by Newtonian physics. To put it another way, here is yet another signifier of our hypercapitalist culture.

Whether or not this hypercapitalist faith is a good thing or not is a value judgment, and since the goal of teaching cultural semiotics is to provide students with the critical equipment necessary to make informed judgments of their own, not to dictate those judgments to them, I will withhold my own here. But I will say this much: Hutcheson's equations, as well intentioned and nobly founded as they may have been, look pretty silly to us today. And I can't help but wonder how our current data-infatuated zeitgeist will look to future culture critics.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3088958 by xresch, used under a Pixabay License

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.